How can I improve my problem-solving skills?

Learn why strong problem-solving skills are essential for success and how to develop these skills by understanding and clarifying the problem. Explore the importance of empathy and first principle thinking in problem-solving, and avoid common pitfalls in generating solutions.

How can I improve my problem-solving skills?
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Introduction: Why problem-solving skills are essential in life and work

The ability to solve diverse and novel problems is the most critical career lever. Anyone can follow paths that have already been trodden. The workforce for repetitive tasks is a dime a dozen, especially if you think AI technologies like OpenAI GPT-3 forward a few more iterations into the future.

It's simple. If you solve your boss's problems, he will promote you and be interested in keeping you (=salary and benefits). The problems are what he actively has in mind. So if you solve his problems, you'll be way out of his perception.

And that's just the surface view: problem-solving skills are crucial for success. They enable us to tackle challenges, overcome obstacles, and solve problems in various situations. These skills are essential for achieving our personal and professional goals and help us think critically, make informed decisions, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Strong problem-solving skills allow us to approach challenges with confidence and determination rather than feeling overwhelmed or helpless. It enables us to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable pieces and to analyse and evaluate information to identify the best course of action.

This is particularly important in the workplace, where we may need to solve problems quickly and effectively to meet deadlines, resolve conflicts, or improve processes and systems.

In addition, problem-solving skills are essential for personal growth and development. They help us to learn from our experiences, to grow and adapt, and to become more resilient and resourceful in the face of adversity. By developing these skills, we can better handle challenges and make the most of our potential and opportunities.

Overall, it is clear that problem-solving skills are a valuable asset in life and work. Whether dealing with a minor inconvenience or a major crisis, thinking clearly and logically and finding practical solutions can make a huge difference in our success and thrive.

Problem-solving skills are crucial for success in life and work.

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Identify and clarify the problem: Start by understanding the problem, its context, and the constraints involved.

We tend to generate ideas for solutions too quickly and follow the first solution ideas that come along. This mistake can cost precious time, energy and resources. The risk is too high that we follow the wrong path or choose an ineffective approach.

This is also what the saying "Work smart, not hard" means. But how?

The solution lies in first understanding the problem rationally and emotionally. And the key to this lies in empathy, i.e. putting yourself in the shoes of the person who has the problem.

  • What is the actual job to be done?
  • What are the reasons for the problem (First Principle Thinking)?
  • Where are the causes, and what are the contributions to the problem? (Ishikawa Diagrams)
  • What does the person who has the problem feel? And what are his alternatives?
  • Are there apparent solutions? Why are these not chosen?
  • And so on.

Answering all these questions will help you understand the problem accurately. I would like to explain how important this is with an example. Especially in IT and digitalisation, I often observe that developing an app or platform is the answer to any problem.

However, this is often not true. In Europe, for example, it will be mandatory for many companies in the future to track and document specific data and facts about their supply chains. Of course, you can develop a super platform here to do this with all the trimmings.

In reality, however, a straightforward alternative is to have a trainee or student assistant compile the data and call up the supply chain partners. Failing to understand this can lead to investing a lot of money in an expensive platform development that doesn't compete with other platforms but with low-cost trainees. And then you wonder why no one buys the platform priced at a 5,000€ license fee a month.

This empathetic approach of putting yourself in the shoes of the problem owner requires that you have certain information. If you don't have it from your own experience, it helps to talk to those affected and actively listen. It does not have to be dozens of interviews. Usually, six conversations are enough to understand everything necessary around a problem.

By involving stakeholders, you can gain valuable insights and perspectives that may not be immediately apparent and ensure that the problem is understood and defined accurately. Additionally, involving stakeholders can help to build support and buy-in for the problem-solving process, which can be crucial for implementing and evaluating the chosen solution.

And another tip for analysing the causes behind a problem: Occam's razor applies here: The simplest option is often the right one.

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Generate possible solutions: Come up with as many solutions as possible without judging them at this stage

The next step is then to generate ideas for solutions. Here it is important not to filter out "nonsensical" ideas too early. Any of your ideas are good!

The goal is to develop as many solutions as possible without judging their feasibility or effectiveness. This allows you to explore a wide range of options and ultimately choose the best solution for the problem at hand.

There are three basic approaches you can take here:

  1. The Solo Steam Boiler Brainstorming. You think you can come up with good ideas on your own and need those ideas immediately. You set a timer for 30 minutes, and in a brainwriting session, you write down all the ideas that come to mind. You put yourself under a little bit of time pressure (i.e. the time box is a little smaller than necessary) to strengthen your creativity. If you can't think of any ideas, there are several creativity tools (e.g. the 6 Thinking Hats) that you can use.
  2. Idea generation in the team. You lack essential perspectives on the topic to be able to generate good ideas. Therefore, you grab colleagues with different functions and backgrounds to join you in a workshop to shed light on the problem and how to find a solution. A simple facilitation methodology is to have participants write post-its with their ideas individually after explaining the situation and formulating the guiding question. These are then gone through and pinned together on a whiteboard. Matching ideas are grouped. Afterwards, the most valuable ideas can be prioritised, bringing us to the next step.
  3. Lateral thinking. My favourite approach and the way my best ideas come about: I take problems to be solved with me over days and weeks. At any given time, I have about 6-12 issues I'm thinking about. I manifest this by having a note in my note-taking program for each case, ready to record thoughts and ideas. I don't consciously and actively set out to generate ideas at a particular time, but I wait for inspiration to hit me. Quite often, this happens on walks. I'm walking, listening to music or podcasts, and suddenly an idea for one of my problems to be solved hits me, which I immediately record on my notepad. As the walk progresses, I flesh out the idea and mentally rehearse it.

Remember, this stage aims to generate as many possible solutions as possible. Don't worry about evaluating the ideas or narrowing them down. The more ideas you have to choose from, the more likely you will find a creative and effective solution to your problem.

Ideas waiting to be had
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Evaluate and select the best solution: Consider the pros and cons of each solution, and choose the one that is most feasible and effective.

After generating a list of possible solutions to a problem, it's essential to carefully evaluate and select the best option. This involves considering each solution’s pros and cons and choosing the most feasible and practical.

To evaluate the solutions, consider cost, time, and resources. Consider how each solution would address the problem and weigh the potential benefits against the drawbacks. For example, a solution may be effective, but it may not be the best option if it requires significant time and resources.

It can also be helpful to consult with others, such as colleagues or experts in the field, to get their input and advice. They may have unique perspectives and insights that can help you evaluate the solutions more effectively.

Trusting your intuition can be a valuable tool in decision-making, as it can help you identify solutions that align with your values and goals. But simultaneously, you should actively avoid thinking errors or fallacies. These are common mistakes in reasoning that can lead to wrong or irrational decisions. Examples of thinking errors include jumping to conclusions, overgeneralising, and making assumptions without evidence. You can make more rational and logical decisions by being aware of these errors and avoiding them.

Finally, feasibility is an important criterion to consider when evaluating solutions. A solution may effectively address the problem, but given the available resources and constraints, it may not be the best option if it is not feasible. It's essential to consider each solution’s effectiveness and feasibility to find the most likely to succeed.

By carefully evaluating and selecting the best solution, you can increase the chances of success and find a feasible and effective solution. With practice and persistence, you can develop the ability to evaluate solutions effectively and make confident decisions.

Once you have evaluated the solutions, choose the most promising one. This may not be the perfect solution, but it should be the best option based on available information and resources. Remember that you can always revisit and adjust your solution if it doesn't work as well as you had hoped. The important thing is to take action and move forward.

In individual problem-solving and team settings, it is vital that a once-selected solution idea is fixed at least for the next step (idea validation) - without ifs and buts! A real commitment. Otherwise, the danger is too high that you will move from idea to idea without making real progress.

Photo by Amélie Mourichon / Unsplash

Implement and evaluate the solution: Put the chosen solution into action, and assess its effectiveness.

In the next step, a common mistake is implementing the solution idea at full throttle and to 100% completion before it is used. This can be observed in the professional context as well as in the private environment:

  • Business Projects: A specification sheet includes all contingencies and special requests in IT projects. The project is implemented over one or even two years before it is used for the first time or an attempt is made to sell it. After these two years, one realises that the idea initially seemed so sound does not work in practice as one had imagined. The two years with all the resource input were in vain.
  • Passion Projects: Someone wants to learn to play the piano. He informs himself extensively and buys the best piano, which the experts recommend. But then he finds out that he dislikes playing the piano and is not motivated to learn. He could have had the same experience with a 30€ electric piano from Amazon.

Ideas have to be tested! This should be done with frugality, which means being as economical as possible with your resources. The cheaper and faster a test is, the better.

  • In design thinking, we work a lot with prototypes. Prototypes can be tinkered with (e.g., a model of an interior design or a new car design) or made digitally (a wireframe sketch of a user interface). The goal is to make ideas tangible to get honest feedback that you wouldn't otherwise get based on an explanation or PowerPoint slides. The testers understand only something real.
  • Amazon even goes one step further and works with „Prototypes“. A product landing page is first built for ideas presenting the product as if it were almost ready. Interested users can put their names on a waiting list via email. Only when a particular interest in the product arises (measurable by the mailing list size) is the actual investment made in product development.

These steps can improve your problem-solving skills and help you achieve your goals more effectively.

I work in a software company designed and structured an app for field staff. That day we made a tour of our flow and could not miss a shot of our work :)
Photo by Alvaro Reyes / Unsplash

Reflect and learn: Take time to reflect on the problem-solving process, and identify areas for improvement

A final step in the problem-solving process is to reflect and learn. This involves taking time to reflect on the process and identifying areas for improvement.

To reflect on the problem-solving process, ask yourself questions such as:

  • What worked well in the process?
  • What could have been done differently or better?
  • What did I learn from this experience?

You could keep a journal or log of your experiences. This can help you track progress and document your insights and lessons learned. You can also share your experiences with others, such as colleagues or mentors, to get their feedback and advice.

In team settings, you could do a „reflection workshop“ where you jointly think about the experiences and learnings.

A megaminx (a variation of a Rubik's cube) solved.
Photo by ALAN DE LA CRUZ / Unsplash

Conclusion: It's helpful to practice problem-solving regularly to hone your skills and develop your ability to tackle challenges effectively

In conclusion, strong problem-solving skills are essential for success in life and work. These skills enable us to tackle challenges, overcome obstacles, and solve problems effectively.

  1. To improve your problem-solving skills, start by understanding the problem, its context, and the constraints involved.
  2. Then, generate possible solutions, evaluate and select the best one, and implement and evaluate it.
  3. Finally, reflect and learn from the problem-solving process, and identify areas for improvement.

By following these steps, you can develop your problem-solving skills and approach challenges with confidence and determination.

Feel free to add your tips and thoughts to this page's comment section, Twitter or LinkedIn!

Best regards,
-- Martin from